Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

I have long been a bit of a sucker for pop science books, and this is probably one of the best. It's fairly long, running to over 500 pages in the hardcover edition with the endnotes, but then its scope is ambitious and sweeping: all of the scientific history of the planet, including physics, chemistry, geology, biology, genetics, and more. A friend scoffed at it once, saying that it mostly details the petty feuds that erupt among scientists, who are all too well aware that credit for advances equates to funding for more research. That's true enough, but those conflicts are hardly without their own intrinsic interest—it's actually amazing to read how often synchronicity occurs in scientific breakthroughs. What appeals to me most is the knack that author Bill Bryson evinces for condensing the most complex concepts to understandability—there's no math here, really, which of necessity makes it all ultra-simplistic in the big picture, and I'm no expert either, so maybe my judgment is just an article of faith. But Bryson continually finds straightforward, striking strategies to convey what he's after. For example, in discussing the scope of our solar system, which we all know well from schoolroom models of various planets swirling about the sun, he makes the point that if the planets were reduced proportionally so that Jupiter were the size of the period that ends this sentence, Pluto would be the size of a single molecule—and they would be 35 feet from one another. Another example that has stuck with me: in studying the Yellowstone area, geologists could see plainly that there is a good deal of volcanic activity there. But try as they might they could not find the caldera, which is the focal point of a volcano, the large basin that results from the explosion or collapse at its center. They could not find it, that is, until satellite photography came along—and the entire region was revealed as being the caldera. That is one motherfucking big volcano, and Bryson goes on to detail exactly how devastating its explosions have been and will be again. Also that it's overdue to blow again, which is more or less going to mean bye-bye North America and hello Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The book actually makes for brisk reading, even as it remains evident that it is essentially inadequate to everything that is actually known and the controversies and disputes surrounding that knowledge. But a bibliography is also included that points to scores more books of varying levels of readability, a good many of them evidently quite accessible. I haven't got to many of them yet, but whenever I'm ready for more of this, that's probably going to be my first stop.

In case it's not at the library.

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